Vayeira: Stopped by an Angel

November 13, 2019 at 11:06 am | Posted in Vayeira | Leave a comment

I wrote this new post on the “akedah”, the binding and near-sacrifice of Isaac, because I keep thinking about two paintings I saw on the subject last week, one at the Archivio di Stato in Siena and one at the Uffizi in Florence.  How does one transform a brief and enigmatic written story into a painting?

Vincent van Gogh, 1885

The words

Abraham almost kills his son Isaac in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (“and he saw”).  God tells him to do it.

And after these events, God nissah Abraham.  And [God] said to him: “Abraham!”  And [Abraham] said: “Here I am.”  And [God] said: “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac, and go for yourself to the land of the Moriyah, and bring him up there as a rising-offering on one of the hills that I will say to you.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 22:1-2)

nissah (נִסָּה) = tested, evaluated, assayed.

The phrase I translate here as “go for yourself” is lekh-lekha, which could also be translated as “get yourself going” or even as “go to yourself”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.)  This week’s Torah portion gives the place-name Moriyah a folk etymology explaining that it means “the vision of God”.  (See my post Lekh-lekha & Vayeira: Hints of Jerusalem.)  A “rising-offering”, my literal translation of olah, is one that is completely burnt up into smoke.

The next sentence begins with Abraham getting out of bed; perhaps he heard God’s request in a dream.

And Abraham got up early in the morning and he saddled his donkey and he took two of his servants with him and his son Isaac and he split wood for the rising-offering and he stood up and he went to the place that God said.  (Genesis 22:3)

The Torah appears to list everything Abraham does between hearing God’s request and arriving at the hill in the land of Moriyah.  It does not say that he speaks to his wife Sarah, Isaac’s mother.  It does not say that he tells anyone where he is going, or why.  It does not say that he wonders why God, who promised him many descendants through Isaac, now tells him to kill Isaac even though the young man is still unmarried and childless.  It does not say that Abraham has any second thoughts, or any thoughts at all.

Maybe Abraham finds God’s request so incomprehensible that he is incapable of thought.  He can only go through the motions as if in a trance.

He does not know that God is testing him.

The journey from Beersheba to the designated hill takes three days.  When they arrive, Abraham leaves the two servants and the donkey at the bottom of the hill and walks to the top with Isaac, who is carrying the wood.  Abraham carries a fire-stone and a knife.

Then Isaac talked to his father, Abraham, and he said: “My father!”  And he said: “Here I am, my son.”  And [Isaac] said: “Here is the fire and the wood.  But where is the sheep for the rising-offering?”  And Abraham said: “God will see to the sheep for the rising-offering, my son.”  And the two of them walked on together. (Genesis 22:7-8) 

Next we see Abraham, who was already 100 years old when Isaac was born, building an altar.  (Altars in the book of Genesis are made out of big stones.)

Tintoretto, detail

And they came to the place that God said.  And Abraham built an altar there and he laid out the wood and he bound his son Isaac and he put him on the altar, on top of the wood.  And Abraham stretched out his hand and he took the knife to kill his son.  (Genesis 22:9-10)

Abraham, who argued with God earlier in this week’s Torah portion about destroying Sodom,1 still does not question God’s request that he use his own son as an animal offering.  He simply picks up the knife.

Then a malakh of God called to him from the heavens and said: “Abraham!  Abraham!”  And he answered: “Here I am”.  And [the malakh] said: “Don’t you stretch out your hand against the youth, and don’t you do harm to him!  Because now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me.”  (Genesis 22:11-12)

malakh (מַלְאַ֤ךְ) = messenger, emissary.  (A messenger from God is often translated in English as “angel”.)

The text says the divine malakh speaks to him, not that it appears to him.  It has to call Abraham’s name twice before he pays attention.  Then the malakh delivers its message referring to God in the third person, then switching to the first person, as if God is talking directly to Abraham by the end of the speech.

All of these divine communications are auditory, not visual.  When Abraham looks up, he sees a ram in the bushes behind him, not a malakh.  Hearing the voice of a malakh is a far cry from seeing a burning bush, like Moses,2 or a crowd of six-winged serafim with faces, hands, and feet, like Isaiah.3

And Abraham raised his eyes, and he saw, and hey!  A ram, behind [him], caught in the thicket by its horns.  And Abraham went and took the ram and sent it up as a rising-offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

Virgin and Child Enthroned with Angels, 1285, Uffizi

The pictures

The climax of the story is the moment when Isaac is on the altar, Abraham is holding the knife, and the angel stops him.  This is the scene that artists have depicted over the centuries, often with a ram in the lower background.  But a painting needs a visual representation of God’s malakh.

In medieval Europe, Christian artists conflated a malakh from God with Isaiah’s serafim, and started a tradition of humanoid angels with bird wings, as in this 1285 painting at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence:

Bible subjects were not supposed to be depicted realistically in the Middle Ages; their purpose was to stimulate awe and worship through symbolic images.  When the Renaissance began in Florence (circa 1380-1420) artists shifted their focus to realism and science, even in religious paintings.  Although the Renaissance spread all over Europe, the artists of Siena, a city south of Florence, stuck to the older tradition for another century.  Here is how Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra painted the Sacrifice of Isaac in Siena in 1485:

Mariotto d’Andrea da Volterra, 1485, Archivio di Stato, Siena.  Photo by M. Carpenter

The angel in this miniature has bird wings, but they melt into the clouds, leaving a general impression of the sky as heaven.  It is more important that the angel’s clothing is diaphanous, in contrast to the opaque fabric that the fully-human Abraham wears.  Isaac is mostly nude with a diaphanous loincloth, ready for the transition from life in this world to life after death.  His discarded clothes lie on the ground to his right, and a ram grazes calmly to his left, but Isaac is prepared to leave the physical plane.

Although Isaac’s face looks pained, his hands are in a Christian prayer position, indicating his consent to the sacrifice.  He kneels on a sculpted marble altar that looks almost like a halo floating off the ground; the painter is not interested in depicting a realistic stone altar like the ones in Genesis.

Abraham is raising a sword, not a knife, implying that he is striking a blow in a metaphysical battle.  The angel reaches for it rather lackadaisically, while its right arm hangs limp; the mere presence of this manifestation of God’s power is enough to stop the action.

At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence I was arrested by a very different depiction of the same scene.  Tintoretto (a.k.a. Robusti Jacopo), a Venetian High Renaissance painter, created more than one version of the Sacrifice of Isaac.  Here is the one in the Uffizi, which he painted in 1550-55:

Tintoretto, 1550-55, Uffizi Gallery.  Photo by M. Carpenter.

The cascading composition creates dramatic interest rather than a contemplative mood.  Isaac looks as though he would fall off the woodpile if Abraham let go of his shoulder, and although he looks passive, he is not praying.  He half-sits on the woodpile, a more realistic indication of the altar than da Volterra’s floating marble oval.  But like da Volterra, Tintoretto omits the biblical detail that Isaac is bound.

The angel’s bird wings are mostly out of the picture, and appear solid, not at all like the clouds.  The angel and Isaac both wear white fabric wrappings that are as opaque as Abraham’s more colorful costume, bringing all three characters into the physical world, along with the bemused ram looking up from the bottom right.

Tintoretto shows Abraham holding a knife; it is not a symbol, but a real detail from the biblical story.  The angel stops him by lightly laying a hand on his arm, as a human being might do to get someone’s attention.  The focus of the painting is the glance between the angel and Abraham.  As their eyes meet, the angel’s expression is gently admonishing, while Abraham’s is stunned, not yet enlightened.

Tintoretto painted the climax of the story in terms of its emotional drama, employing realism, a  composition fraught with tension, and a choice of details that all emphasize Abraham’s human dilemma.  I am sure I am not the only viewer who has responded to this painting by imagining myself in Abraham’s place, and wondering what his choice means.

Da Volterra, on the other hand, took the medieval approach of turning a biblical scene into an object of worship.  He referred to the story by including its main elements, but he freely added details such as the sword and the floating marble oval to increase the symbolism.  His angel is as passive as the clouds around it, merely a symbol of God’s contact with the world.

*

Does either painting address the question of whether Abraham passed or failed God’s test?  Da Volterra’s version implies that Abraham is simply carrying out what God has ordained.  I think he must have taken the divine words “now I know that you fear God; you have not withheld your son, your only one, from me” as evidence that Abraham passed God’s test.  Abraham’s unselfish—and unquestioning—obedience was the right thing to do.

But for a Renaissance man like Tintoretto, and for me, the interpretation of the test results is not so easy.  Tintoretto’s painting leaves the question open.

And in the context of the whole Torah, in which God appears to enjoy arguing and bargaining with first Abraham4 and then Moses5 when lives are at stake, I think God wants Abraham to question the command to sacrifice his son.  I propose that God did not actually want him to kill Isaac; after all, God sent an angelic voice to stop him in time.  Since Abraham failed to do what God really wanted, he failed the test.  And that is why Abraham never heard God’s voice again.

  1. Genesis 18:23-33.
  2. Exodus 3:2.
  3. Isaiah 6:2-6.
  4. Genesis 18:23-33.
  5. Exodus 32:9-14, 33:12-17, and 34:8-10.

Repost: Lekh-lekha

November 6, 2019 at 8:22 am | Posted in Lekh Lekha | Leave a comment

“Lekh-lekha!” God says to Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, called Lekh-lekha.  The first word of this phrase, lekh (לֶךְ), is easy to translate; it means “go” in the imperative.  The second word, lekha (לְךָ), is more ambiguous.  The -kha suffix means “you”, “your”, or “yourself”.  The preposition at the beginning of the word, לְ, could correspond to either “to” or “for” in English.

Certainly God is urging Abraham, who has lingered for years in Charan, to go to a new land now.  Adding lekha might make the request more urgent; God might be saying “You!  Go!” or “Get yourself going!”

But commentators through the ages have pointed out that God might also be saying “Go for yourself!”  In other words, Abraham should uproot himself from Charan and go to Canaan for his own sake.  Or God might be saying “Go to yourself!”  In other words, Abraham should look inside himself and see that going away is part of his nature.

*

Tempio Maggiore

We had many reasons, my husband and I, to uproot ourselves from our familiar and comfortable life in Oregon and fly to Europe and eventually Israel for a new adventure.  Here on the other side of the globe we have had many new experiences, some of them delightful.  But the day we visited Tempio Maggiore, the Great Synagogue of Florence, was so disconcerting I still feel uprooted.

The synagogue itself is a majestic Neo-Moorish building constructed 1874-1882, after Jews in Florence were given full citizenship and the old ghetto was razed and turned into a large public square.

In the same block as the Great Synagogue we found a now-defunct Chabad house; Ruth’s, the best kosher restaurant I’ve eaten at on two continents; and soldiers in berets and “camouflage” uniforms.   (At least that’s what uniforms of patchy green, brown, and khaki are called, though they really stand out in a street of gray stone and stucco.)  These soldiers were carrying sub-machine guns.

View from Ruth’s

A building labeled “Carabinieri” was in the next block.  But there were no carabinieri posted at the entrances to this military police station.  Instead, they were walking slowly up and down the block in front of the synagogue.  Protecting Jews.  Protecting us.

I know that anti-Semetism has increased lately in the United States, and in a few cities people have opened fire on Jews in synagogues.  I understand why even in Portland, Oregon, there are now police guards at the front doors buildings where Jews are arriving in droves for  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  I understand why we had to show our ID at the door to enter a synagogue in Prague for Yom Kippur.

But I was not psychologically prepared for sub-machine guns.

Some people probably feel safer thanks to these well-armed carabinieri.  But I felt less safe.  I felt as if I had stepped into a war zone without knowing it.  Am I more at risk than all the other Americans touring Florence just because I am a Jew and I eat at a kosher restaurant?

Maybe I am.  Can I accept it?  What about when we reach Israel, and we see a lot more guards carrying sub-machine guns?

Lekh-lekha!  Go for yourself!”  I expected this journey to benefit me personally, broadening my horizons and knowledge.  And it has.

Lekh-lekha!  Go to yourself!”  I did not expect this journey to open an uncomfortable cranny of my own psychology.  But it has, most notably at Terezin, and now in Florence.

*

Click here for my 2011 post on this week’s Torah portion:  Lekh-Lekha & Vayeira: Going with the Voice.

Noach: The Flood and the Holocaust

October 30, 2019 at 8:57 am | Posted in Noach | 1 Comment

Since we toured Terezin three weeks ago, I have been haunted by the idea of genocide.  How could Hitler and his government decide that a whole “race” of people, including even the children, was irredeemable and should be exterminated like vermin?

I can understand wanting a particular individual to die.  Twice in my own life I hated a person who seemed fixated on doing things that ruined my life or the life of someone I loved, and I could not think of any way to escape.  I wished that individual were dead.  I could not feel empathy.  At least I was lucky enough to have the moral sense and common sense not to act out of my fear and hatred.

But I cannot imagine what it would be like to hate a whole category of people, millions of strangers I had never even met, human beings with virtues and failings and desires and moments of kindness and insight.  What would it be like to hate them all, to believe they do not deserve respect, and to cooperate in a program to persecute and murder them?

What would it be like to feel the blanket fear and hatred that many Christians felt for Jews from the Middle Ages through the 19th century?  That Nazis and their supporters felt for Jews during the 1930’s and 1940’s?  That some Americans and Europeans feel for immigrants today?

Then I came to this week’s Torah portion, Noach.  How could the God-character in this mythic story decide that only Noah and his immediate family were worth saving, while the rest of the human species was irredeemable and should be exterminated?

So I wrote a new post this week, about final solutions and how they failed.

The Flood: Not a Final Solution

And God saw how the wickedness of humankind on the earth was abundant, and how all the forms of [human] designs were only wicked all the time.  And God regretted that [God] had made humankind on the earth, and [God’s] heart became saddened.”  (Genesis 6:5)

This expression of regret at the end of the first Torah portion, Bereishit, launches the story of Noah and the ark in the next portion, Noach.  The God-character notices that although Noah is good enough, humans in general have become violent and destructive.

And God saw the earth, and hey!  Nishchatah, because all flesh hishchit on the earth.  And God said to Noah: “The end of all flesh is coming before me, because the earth is filled with violence on account of them, so hey!  Here I am, mashchitam along with the earth.  Make for yourself an ark …  (Genesis/Bereishit 6:12-14)

nishchatah (נִשְׁחָתָה) it had been ruined, destroyed.  (A form of the verb shachat, שָׁחַת = lay waste, ruin, inflict calamity and death.)

The Deluge, by Francis Danby, 1840

hischit (הִשִׁית) = has inflicted ruin.  (Another form of the verb shachat.)

mashchitam (מַשְׁחִיתָם) = destroying them.  (Another form of the verb shachat.)

The divine answer to the violent destruction perpetrated by the human species is to drown the perpetrators—and all the other land animals—and start again.  After the flood is over, Noah sacrifices the extra animals that God told him to bring on board.  The God-character smells the smoke of the offering and has a second change of heart.

And God smelled the soothing odor, and God thought: “Never again will I curse the land because of humankind, since the forms of its mind are wicked from its youth.  And never again will I strike down all life, as I have done.”  (Genesis 8:21)

Then God makes a covenant with Noah and his descendants, promising never to flood the whole world again.  Next the God-character blesses Noah and his sons, confirms that they will rule over all other animals, and changes the rules about killing.  In the Garden of Eden, God declared that all creatures that move on the land or fly in the sky, including humans, could eat only seed-bearing plants and trees (Genesis 1:29-30, 2:16).  Now God permits the consumption of meat.

Every creature that lives shall be yours to eat, like green vegetation; I have given you everything.  However, flesh with the living soul in it, its blood, you must not eat.  (Genesis 9:3-4)

This new rule indicates that part of the destruction and violence that prompted the flood consisted of carnivorous behavior, by humans and by other animals.  God decides to compromise and let humans kill and eat animals, as long as they respect the animals’ souls by not eating their blood.1

Cain and Abel, school of Rembrandt

The other reason for the flood appears to be that humans were killing other humans.  God warned Cain to resist this impulse in vain.  (Genesis 4:6-12)  After the flood God puts the warning a different way.

Whoever sheds human blood, by a human shall his blood be shed; because [God] made humankind in the image of God.  (Genesis  9:6)

Perhaps the God-character hopes that humans would improve if they were allowed a limited measure of violence concerning other animals, and allowed to execute anyone convicted of murder.  God also reminds Noah and his family that murder is prohibited because humankind was made in the image of God.

With the right guidance, the God-character now believes, humans can learn to avoid the worst behavior.  Although humans have evil impulses, they are not all bad.  Since God gives humankind another chance, God probably sees that good impulses are also part of human nature.

It is a start.  As the book of Genesis continues, God gives humans more rules to follow, and notices more humans who are virtuous.

Unfortunately, when people in power “play God” they often act more like the God-character who drowns the world than the God-character who tries to help humans improve.

The Holocaust: An Attempt at a Final Solution

Pinkas Synagogue, Prague (photo by Melissa Carpenter)

In Prague, nobody forgets what happened 60 years ago.  In the train station I saw a memorial to Jewish parents forced to leave their children and board trains for concentration camps when Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.  On the way to Wenceslaus Square my husband and I passed a former Jewish bank that the gestapo used to interrogate and torture Czech Jews from 1939 to 1945.

One of the six synagogues in the old Jewish quarter of the city, the Pinkas Synagogue, is now a Holocaust memorial, its walls covered with the names of about 78,000 Czech Jews who perished.

Chess set seized by SS (photo by M. C.)

At the Museum of Decorative Arts we saw personal treasures, from paintings to teacups, that Jews had packed in their suitcases when the Nazis forced them to abandon their homes.  When the Jews arrived at Terezin or another holding camp, the gestapo went through their suitcases and confiscated everything of value.  The Nazis kept records, so the exhibit identified the original owners of the items.

On a clear day in October we toured Terezin (renamed Theresienstadt by the Nazis), about 60 km (37 miles) from Prague.  On the way the bus passed potato, cabbage, and mustard fields.  The mustard was blooming yellow.

The bus drove through an entrance gap in the outer walls: a brick berm covered with grass, a narrow moat, and a second brick and grass berm.  The Hapsburg emperor Joseph II built these fortifications in 1784 to turn a country village into a military base.  Inside the outer walls he added barracks and stables for a cavalry unit.  The Hapsburgs also built a prison next door, encircled by a similar fortification.  When Germany captured Czechoslovakia in 1939, the new rulers continued to use the large fort as an army base and confine political prisoners in the small fort.  Then Adolph Eichmann, who was in charge of the logistics for mass deportations of Jews to concentration and extermination camps, picked Terezin for another purpose.

The “Final Solution” that the top Nazi administrators agreed on in January of 1942 was genocide: extinction of the entire “race” of Jews.  There were so many Jews, in all the territory Germany had conquered, that Eichmann had to do it in stages.  The first stage was to remove Jews from their homes and transport them to collection centers like Terezin.

At Terezin, Jews had enough uncertainty about their future to put up with SS orders and restrictions, hoping that the Allies would soon win the war, hoping that when groups of residents were loaded on trains bound for Auschwitz and other camps their lives would be bearable.  They did not know their families and friends were going to extermination camps.

Terezin crematory (photo by M.C.)

On our tour of Terezin, we saw the former barracks where old Jews were assigned to unheated stables and attics, so that they would die quickly by freezing in the winter or by heat stroke in the summer.  We saw drawings by Jewish children and drawings by Jewish professional artists, including depictions of gaunt residents waiting in line for thin soup ladled out from a barrel.  We saw the cemetery, where every morning hearses brought bodies to be dissected, cremated, and buried.  We saw the railroad tracks where newcomers arrived at Terezin and where Terezin residents were herded into cattle cars bound for extermination camps.

Hitler’s government had two cold-blooded reasons to persecute Jews.  One was to confiscate Jewish wealth (everything from money and property to the gold fillings in their teeth) in order to fund the German war of conquest.  The other was to feed the myth of Aryan superiority and inspire enough hatred so the German population would be willing to go to war, put up with wartime deprivations, and keep the Fuhrer in power.  Escalating the hatred meant escalating the persecution, and eventually murder, of the people chosen as scapegoats.

Hitler revived hatred of Jews in the first place not just by reviling them, but by blaming them for unemployment, poverty, and crime.  Today some of the political parties in the United States and Europe blame immigrants for unemployment, poverty, and crime.

The God-character in the Torah portion Noach is right about humankind: the forms of its mind are wicked from its youth.  (Genesis 8:21)  And the most wicked designs come not from the scapegoats, but from the oppressors.

May all humans realize that there is never a “final solution”, that mass murder only increases the evil in the world.  And may we all accept that human nature is a mixture of good and bad, so the best course of action is to encourage good deeds, by education and by example.  Then we will become the image of God after the Flood, the wiser, more mature God-character with a better understanding of human nature.

  1. For more on the prohibition against eating blood, see my post Re-eih & Acharei Mot: The Soul in the Blood.

 

Repost: Bereishit

October 24, 2019 at 11:09 am | Posted in Bereishit | Leave a comment

Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel

And God formed the human out of the dust of the earth, and blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became an animated animal.  (Genesis/Bereishit 2:7)

Sorry, Michelangelo.  In the book of Genesis, God breathes life into the first human’s nose.  God does not animate Adam with a fingertip, the way Michelangelo painted it on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

I’d like to say I saw this painting on our first full day in Italy.  But we are in Florence, not Rome, and we had to go grocery shopping.  So today all we saw the house where Michelangelo lived as an adolescent, along with two of his earliest relief sculptures.

Michelangelo, Battle of the Centaurs (photo by Melissa Carpenter)

His “Battle of the Centaurs”, completed in 1492 when he was 17, proved that he had already mastered the realistic depiction of the human form (in a period when artists were just beginning to revive the approach of ancient Greek sculptors).  But his own spark of genius had not yet emerged.

Next week we plan to see some of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, from “David” to “Captives”.  How amazing that he could create such things out of giant blocks of marble!  How amazing that we are here, and can see them!

What a crazy universe we humans inherited.  We have inspiration, we have beauty, we have life.  We also have despair, and evil deeds, and death.  Can we embrace the good things without hiding from the bad?

Click on this link to read my 2015 post about how humans and God hide from each other: Bereishit: In Hiding.

Repost: Sukkot

October 16, 2019 at 12:02 pm | Posted in Sukkot | Leave a comment

Our studio apartment in Prague

We came home today after a quick trip to Meissen, Germany.  Home is the apartment in Prague we moved into three weeks ago.  We know where everything is here, and we have our new routines down.  We know, finally, how to operate the washing machine.  We know the neighborhood, including our two favorite restaurants, and we know where to put our recycling.  We’ve been watching workers remove the cobblestones on sections of sidewalk, dig trenches, lay cable, fill in the trenches, and replace the cobblestones in decorative patterns.

We know our way around the nearest public square, where we get on the subway to go sightseeing, shop at our usual grocery store, print files at our copy shop, and get cash at our bank machine.  We can make change in Czech koruny.  (They don’t use the euro here in Czechia.)

We are comfortable in our home in Prague.  And next week, we leave to spend a month in Italy.

Traveling the slow way, with no house waiting for us back in the United States, is good practice in accepting impermanence.

So is the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.  For a week, Jews are supposed to live at least part of each day in a sukkah, a temporary structure with a roof of branches or reeds that has enough gaps to feel raindrops and see stars.

For this re-post, I polished up my 2013 post on the Torah reading for the week of Sukkot:  Sukkot: Temporary and Permeable.

We too are temporary and permeable.  My husband and I are traveling abroad now because we know the improvement in our health is temporary; someday we will decline again, and someday we will die.

Since life is temporary, why not make the most of it?  Since every home and every habit is temporary, why not embrace change?  And since every soul is permeable, why not open ourselves to joy and edification as well as sorrow?

In Jewish liturgy, Sukkot is known as “The Season of Our Rejoicing”.

Repost: Ha-azinu

October 9, 2019 at 1:37 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Most years the Torah portion Ha-azinu (“Use your ears”) is read the week before Yom Kippur, but in this new year of 5780 it comes afterward.

I did not prepare for Yom Kippur this time, except to find a synagogue in Prague where my husband and I could go.  I did not review my deeds of the past year or determine where I had missed the mark.  I did not ask anyone for forgiveness (though when a friend reached out to me, I did have an honest conversation and forgive her, and I honor her for that).  I did not reconsider my relationship with God.

I was too busy moving and packing and planning for the big change in our lives, and then I was too busy with the beginning of our journey.

I have continued to say a few prayers every morning, and blessings before every meal, but I have not been to a Shabbat service for the past two months.

In Prague I have been grateful for all the Czechs who speak English, and for the English translations on some plaques, brochures, and menus.  I have also been surrounded by people speaking a language I cannot begin to understand, and writing in a language I can neither pronounce nor decipher.

Jerusalem Synagogue

But when we went to the Jerusalem Synagogue, and I saw Hebrew texts from the psalms on the walls.  I could read them!  Softly I began singing a psalm to myself, uplifted not only by the beautiful 1906 Neo-Moorish synagogue building, but by the words in the universal language of the Jewish religion.

On Yom Kippur, we went to a service led by a small congregation in the Maisel Synagogue, built in 1592 in the Renaissance style.  The building is part of the Jewish Museum except on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, when the Bejt Praha congregation uses it for its original purpose.  We will come back another day to tour the whole building and look and the displays, but on Yom Kippur we sat on folding chairs in the middle of the echoing central hall, and sang prayers.

Maisel Synagogue

Although the congregation had hired an American rabbi who spoke English, the prayer books were in Czech and Hebrew.  Whenever the rabbi or the cantor began to sing, we could find the right prayer in Hebrew.  Most of the melodies were also familiar.  We joined in the singing, and their community was also our community for a while.

I have been happy exploring Prague, not worrying about atonement, so I could not plead with God in the spirit of the holy day.  But praying in the old synagogue with other Jews brought me comfort and reminded me of God.

After Yom Kippur ended, I polished up my 2012 post on this week’s Torah portion, which considers meeting God in a desolate place without comfort, a place where we all find ourselves at some point in our lives.  Click on Ha-azinu: The Tohu Within, to read it.

Yom Kippur: We

October 3, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Posted in Yom Kippur | 1 Comment

Since my husband and I began packing in August, my weekly post has consisted of a reflection on the current step in our journey, and a link to one of my past posts on the Torah portion of the week.  But this week is different.

Jeruzalemska Synagoga, Praha

Today we saw the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague, a breathtakingly beautiful Neo-Moorish and Art Nouveau building completed in 1906 to replace synagogues demolished when the city built a new boulevard through the old Jewish quarter.  During World War II the Nazi occupiers used the building as a warehouse for confiscated Jewish property, instead of destroying it.  After the war a small group of Jews resumed prayer services there, despite Soviet discouragement, and since the Velvet Revolution the congregation has grown.

Tomorrow we will visit Terezin, a fortified village near Prague which Hitler’s government turned into a concentration camp.  The Nazis imprisoned 144,000 Jews there from 1941 to 1945; only around 23,000 survived.  About 33,000 died of malnutrition and disease inside Terezin; 88,000 were sent on to extermination camps.

Four days later we will observe Yom Kippur with a congregation in Prague, and I will repeat the fundamental liturgy in Hebrew, the confessions and pleas that Jews all around the world will recite.

And tonight I find I must write a new post.

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Ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu, dibarnu dofi.

          We are guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have spoken slander.

On the day of Yom Kippur, the day for seeking atonement with God, Jews chant the vidui, a confession of the whole community’s sins.1

Our religion asks each of us to do a personal atonement during the weeks before Yom Kippur.  We consider who we might have harmed during the past year, repent as much as we can, and ask each person for forgiveness (when it is possible, and when it does no further harm).  We also consider how we have fallen short in our service to God, or perhaps to the still, small voice within.  This work is different for each individual.

But on Yom Kippur we all chant out loud a list of sins that we as individuals may not have committed.  And every offense is in the first person plural, “we”, indicated by the verb ending וּ (u) = we.

Ha-evinu vehirshanu, zadnu, chamasnu, tafalnu sheker.

          We have been perverse and we have been wicked, we have acted with malice, we have done violence, we have made false claims.

In the story of Noah, God decided to destroy the world and start over because “the earth was full chamas”, the violence that humans committed.2  To this day, humans have not overcome the habit of violence.

Ya-atznu ra, kizavnu, latznu, maradnu, niatznu.

          We have given harmful advice, we have lied, we have mocked, we have rebelled, we have been unrespectful.

Who are “we”?  This part of the communal confession could refer to any congregation, any relatively small group of human beings.  Nearly everyone has tossed off advice without considering whether it might be harmful to the advisee.  We all tell “white lies” out of what we think is kindness to the other person, or because explaining the truth seems too complicated and unnecessary.  And it is so easy to mock someone who is far away, different from you, and taking actions you resent—a president, perhaps, or someone interviewed on television.  Everyone rebels at some time against an authority figure or what we have learned is our duty.  And I find it takes constant attention to be respectful to every human being and to the Creator.

Sararnu, avinu, pashanu, tzararnu, kishinu oref.

          We have disobeyed (God), we have been immoral, we have been negligent, we have oppressed, we have been stiff-necked (refusing to change).

Who are “we”?  Sure, everyone is negligent at times, there are too many families in which one person oppressed another, and change is difficult.  But this part of the list implies a more serious level of wrongdoing.  What happens when a whole segment of society oppresses another segment, using religion or politics or even a dress code as an excuse?  What happens when a large number of people reinforce each other in refusing to change to meet new challenges that have arisen in the world?

Rashanu, shichatnu, ti-avnu, ta-inu, titanu.

          We have been wicked, we have been corrupt, we have committed atrocities, we have gone astray, we have led others astray.

Who are “we”?  What if “we” means all human beings, including Nazis and others who do evil deliberately?  Including people who do bad deeds out of peer pressure or the fear of punishment?  Including people who merely witness atrocities, and do not know how to stop them?

Ashamnu.  We are guilty.  That is the nature of humankind.  But we can pray, this Yom Kippur and all year round, for atonement and realignment, for change—for us and for all human beings.

  1. Each time the service reaches another vidui, there are two confessions of communal wrongdoing. The first, called the Ashamnu after the first word, lists offenses in alphabetical order (according to the Hebrew aleph-bet), with each entry being a verb in the form “we have ____”.  One tradition is to beat one’s breast when chanting each offense.  After the Ashamnu list, the congregation switches to a different melody and chants sentences asking forgiveness “for the sin we have committed before you”, using another list of communal sins, with the chorus “And for all these, God of pardons, pardon us, forgive us, grant us atonement.”
  2. Genesis 6:11.

Repost: Nitzavim

September 26, 2019 at 4:30 am | Posted in Nitzavim | Leave a comment

Glimpsing how people in other cultures live is one benefit of travel.  Before we left New York, Will and I took a tour of Hasidic Brooklyn—actually of the Lubavitcher enclave in Crown Heights.

Rav Yoni Katz, tour guide

Our guide, Rabbi Yoni Katz, is an American Jew, like us.  But we wore casual clothes that would blend in anywhere in the country, while he wore a 1940-style black hat, an untrimmed beard, and a black suit with white fringes (tzitzit) hanging out from under the bottom of his jacket.  We have only one child; he has seven children so far.  We enjoy the gender equality of our era; he is comfortable in a community that believes women have different natures, a community where most (though not all) women stay home to raise their many children.  We grope to define the mystery called “God”; he speaks as if God were his beloved grandfather, still living in the neighborhood.

It seems natural for him and some other Lubavitcher Hasids we met to take injunctions in the Torah as literal expressions of what God needs from the humans “He” created.  For example, the book of Numbers/Bemidbar tells us to wear tzitzit (knotted fringes) on four corners of a garment to remind us of the rules, so Hasidic men wear tzitzit every day for God’s sake.  The Torah lists rules for kosher eating and the Talmud expands on them, so the men and women carefully keep kosher for God’s sake.

As for myself, I never accept a religious rule because a human being with authority wrote it down and claimed it came from God.  Humans may be inspired by God, but our own brains translate inspiration into words, and a lot can get lost or altered in translation.  Therefore if I cannot think of a good reason for a Jewish rule, I ignore it.  I do not obey chukim (directives with no rationale).

Nevertheless, Yoni’s introduction to the Lubavitcher philosophy of life spoke to my heart.  In short, he said that acting out of egotism will never make life meaningful.  What matters is meeting the needs of others—both other humans who need us and God, who created us because “He” needs us.

Every week during our journey toward Jerusalem, I am sending a link to one of the posts on the weekly Torah portion that I have written during the last nine years.  This week, after listening to Yoni, I chose Nitzavim: Still Standing

What does it mean to be standing before God?  Can anyone do it?  What does it mean to stop acting just for your own benefit, as if you were a god?  Click on the link above and see what I wrote in 2012.

Today, as I post this, we are sitting in the airport in Rome.  Next week I will be posting from Prague.  Our journey continues.

(Note: If any of my comments about Lubavitchers is wrong, please let me know.)

Repost: Ki Tavo

September 18, 2019 at 8:11 pm | Posted in Ki Tavo | Leave a comment

Bruchim Habayim (“Blessed are those who come”, i.e. “Welcome”)

Are we there yet?  Is this sign in Israel?

No, it’s part of a bilingual sign welcoming people to Saratoga Park in Brooklyn.  We are renting an apartment across the street, for a week, before we continue our journey east.

Between Portland, Oregon and New York, New York my husband and I spent a good weekend at my sister’s house in the New England woods.

Both my sister and I are called to write.  (To find my sister’s writing, see sarabacker.com.)  We both have a passion for ethics, and a commitment to thinking things through.

For me, ethics is not a list of God-given rules, but rather a method for treating other human beings (and the whole world of living things) with respect and consideration.

So this week I polished up an essay I wrote nine years ago on Moses’ ritual for dedicating oneself to good behavior.  Here’s the link:  Ki Tavo: Cursing Yourself.

 

 

 

Repost: Ki Teitzei

September 11, 2019 at 9:55 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Our adventure begins before dawn.  Everything we still own that we are not taking on the airplane tomorrow is now packed away in our storage unit.  (We also loaned our car to our son and daughter-in-law.)  At 5:00 a.m. the motel shuttle will take us to the airport, and we will fly the first leg of our trip: Portland, Oregon, to Boston, Massachusetts.  This is the trip we have spent years waiting for, the one that will eventually take us to Israel.

Here is my 2015 post on this week’s Torah portion: Ki Teitzei: Crossing Gender Lines.

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